I Want My MBA! But How Do I Choose the Right One?

All one has to do is open a local newspaper to see the plethora of advertisements for MBA programs. If you’re looking to get an advanced business degree, the ads make it look so easy: Visit the website, download an application, and you’re off and running.

Not so fast. While there may be hundreds of MBA programs available in the United States, how will you decide which one is the best fit for you?

Your effective evaluation of programs begins with getting a clear sense of what you hope to gain with an MBA. Do you have clear short- and long-term goals for your life? Who are you today, professionally? Are you looking to advance in your company or industry, or are you looking to change your profession altogether? Identifying your goals may be a challenge, but it is an imperative step toward selecting the MBA programs you want to consider.

Once your goals are clear, compare your skills with those required in the career path you seek. What are your strengths and weaknesses? How will an MBA help you in this regard? Be honest with yourself about your talents, and you will be best able to evaluate program offerings and tell your application story to your schools of choice.

Use the following key criteria to research and evaluate five to ten MBA programs that may meet your goals:

1. Method of instruction. Most business schools operate on at least one of three methods of instruction: the case method, in which classes discuss actual business case scenarios and extract lessons; lecture, in which professors educate their classes by outlining theories and best practices; or experiential learning, in which classmates learn from their experiences working on team-based projects. How do you like to learn? How do you learn best? When reviewing schools, find those that use the methods that most appeal to you.

2. Cost. Tuition for top-tier programs can reach upwards of $80,000. Others cost less but are still an investment. If you want to attend a full-time program, remember to consider the cost of giving up your salary and benefits, plus any advancement you could receive during the two-year time frame.

3. Full-time vs. part-time. If you need to enhance your skills set but will likely remain in your company or field, or if you have limited time or financial resources, you may consider a part-time program. It will take a little longer, but in the end you’ll gain similar knowledge.

4. Academic focus area. Certain MBA programs are known for their strengths in specific areas of business such as marketing, finance and technology management. If you know the area you want to study, look at schools with this expertise. Looking for generalist training? Seek programs with a general management philosophy.

5. Class size/alumni network. One of the greatest benefits of getting an MBA is the class you learn and network with for the rest of your career. Programs with large classes tend to have large alumni networks, yet in some cases the group is then less connected. Smaller programs have fewer alums but are sometimes more close knit.

6. Location. Do you want to stay in the area or are you willing to go elsewhere? Are you striving to be in a certain area of the country in the long run? If so, consider studying in that destination versus relocating later.

7. Reputation. One of the biggest reasons for getting an MBA is the credential it offers. The brand of your program may influence your personal brand. When looking at programs, consider what a degree from each school will say about you, what you know, your values and your qualities.

After you have used these criteria to create an initial list, make a research plan for each school. Talk to students and alums, read career reports, independent reviews and school materials, and then attend as many events as possible where you can learn about the programs you are targeting. Thorough research is how you’ll get your best sense of the program, but don’t try to do all this in one day.

When you complete the research, do a personal reality check. Consider your own qualifications and compare them to average applicants at each program. Standard qualifications include undergrad institution, grade-point average, GMAT score, work experience (quality and quantity), accomplishments at work and outside interests.

Keep in mind that you do not need to be a 100 percent match with other applicants, but if you do not come close to matching on any criteria, it’s wise to consider other programs.

Ultimately, for each school you choose you should have three clear reasons it is right for you. Early soul-searching will help you identify exactly what you want out of an MBA. Combined with time dedicated to researching programs, you’ll be able to narrow your target list to five schools ideally suited to your needs. And then you are really off and running.

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